OPINION – Without choice, there is no freedom.
And, without freedom, life becomes nothing more than simply finding a way to survive.
That is the essence of life as a woman chained to polygamy, at least in the mind of Lynette Warner, who was one of nearly 80 wives claimed by Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot sect of the mainstream LDS church.
Warner, now 30, was a spiritual wife to Jeffs, who is serving a life-plus 20 years sentence in a Texas prison after his 2011 conviction on two counts of sexual assault of a child for his spiritual marriage to two underage girls – one 12 and the other 15.
She was placed in marriage at the age of 18 and soon realized she wanted out of a culture and community that she no longer understood. It took eight years of repeated attempts to escape before she finally was able to break away from the sect 3 ½ years ago.
Warner said she was punished for her escape attempts by having her privileges taken away, was locked up in solitary confinement to force her to conform to church guidelines and was threatened with blood atonement.
“It can get so bad they tell you that you won’t live another day,” she said.
As a result, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It took several trips to the hospital and a series of misdiagnoses over the years before she was finally put on a regimen of effective treatment and medication.
“It’s like what soldiers get when they come out of the army,” she said. “I start to disassociate. I start to go through a stage with severe nightmares that are very real to me. Now, I fight through it, I’m getting better. But, there are triggers that cause that. They would not allow me to talk to a psychologist. They kept me heavily medicated. There was another lady who, by the time she got to a real medical doctor on the outside, the doctors said she would have died from what was in her system.”
Although painful, the trauma helped Warner succeed in her desire to leave the FLDS community.
“I tried for like five years to get out,” she said during an exclusive interview with St. George News. “My main problem was that I didn’t know about the organizations on the outside (that offer assistance to those trying to escape polygamy). I had a brother that was out, but I knew that was the first place they would look for me.”
Finally, she was able to escape through a window of a house where she was being held.
“They had turned around the doorknob and put two screws in the window so it wouldn’t open,” she said. “I broke one of the screws and undid the other and got out, crossed the yard and was gone.”
With help from the Shield and Refuge Ministry, which describes itself as “a loving, Christ-centered outreach to those seeking freedom from Mormon Fundamentalism and Polygamy,” Warner was able to make her way to Tennessee where she lived for two years, changed her name and was adopted by author Kristyn Decker, who had escaped from polygamy many years earlier.
Warner was raised in the FLDS faith and was a student at Alta Academy, a church school at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City where Jeffs served as principal for 22 years.
“They taught you from a young age that it was a privilege to have more than one mother, that it was a blessing,” she said. “One will make the meals, one will tend the children, one would do the yard work. When you are children, you just want to fit in, but when you get big is when you start to realize ‘Is this something I really want?’ You have to really want something to get out and face the differences (in lifestyles) and say ‘I want this.’ I wanted freedom. I wanted to live. I wanted to help the children.”
As most born into the faith, Warner was taught from the cradle that her eternal salvation depended on her living the word of her church and prophet.
“It was always part of everything to work toward salvation,” she said. “Salvation is all he (Jeffs) talks about.”
Warner said Jeffs would often coerce people into following his will by telling them they would “only be qualified to be a servant in heaven” if they didn’t obey and that small children were a part of FLDS indoctrination.
“I got to a point where I thought if that’s what we have to do to children in heaven, I don’t want to be in heaven. It’s psychological abuse. They withhold toys, their childhood, and the child labor is also abuse.”
Warner said her attempts at escape led to her often being remanded to what the FLDS call “houses in hiding” where she would be sent with, usually, a handful of other women who were deemed rebellious or unworthy.
The women, she said, were placed under the watchful eye of a male caretaker whose job was to urge repentance.
“I lived in several (houses of hiding). You live there until you pray hard enough (to be returned to the community).”
Warner said things became so desperate while she was living in one of the houses of hiding in Wyoming that she threatened to take her own life.
“They speak a kind of code,” she said of FLDS followers. “They wanted me to teach the children the symbols and the code. It was hard enough on me; I couldn’t think of doing it to a child. If they learn it, they can’t communicate in the world.”
She refused and was sent to do her penance at the home in Wyoming where she became so despondent she thought of suicide.
“The caretaker said if I killed myself they would cover it up as an accident,” she said. “There was a reservoir close by. I said, ‘What if I jump in the reservoir?’”
She said her caretaker basically shrugged it off.
“I went in up to my neck,” Warner said, “and I sat there long enough to see if they would come after me or let me drown.”
Nobody came to her rescue.
“That, to me, was telling me they really do stage things to look like an accident,” she said.
Afterwards, she was sent back to Colorado City, Arizona.
Warner said she didn’t want to marry Jeffs, but she believed if she didn’t, she would never marry.
“So I felt I had to say yes and that I might get by with trying, but it wasn’t easy. He’s very mean. I was scared of him. I resisted from the very start. A lot of my harassment was a result of that. He wasn’t physically violent himself but very much in control. There was no compassion, no mercy. He told us ‘The time of compassion is over, there’s no love.’”
Christine Marie Katas understands the life Warner lived,although she was once a member of another polygamist sect.
Katas said she hopes people listen to Warner’s story and offer support.
“My situation? I believed in a false prophet,” Katas said, continuing:
I experienced the power of psychological change and the traumatic fear of consequences for disobedience. When my experience was over, people did not have compassion for me because of this misconception that I should have known better. They did not understand the power of religion, my background.
Religion is such a powerful force that people become suicide bombers. It’s more powerful than a gun held to their head.
When people go public with their story as people who have experienced psychological manipulation/violence, they are trying to make something good come from something bad. They have a life narrative. Our identity is the stories they’ve been through.
Survivors are terrified to share their stories because of the media and its insensitivity. The public needs to realize that what she’s (Warner) telling is probably one 100th of what she actually experienced.
Katas, who is now working towards her doctorate in media psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, said it is difficult for people to understand how difficult it is to escape from a religious cult.
“A pet peeve I have is when people come out of a community and outsiders say ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’”
She said for some people it is all they know, but quickly added that there are also those who convert to religious cults.
“The fact is, the media never seems to cover the psychological process of cult mind control,” she said. “They show the horrors of religious abuse, but not what’s behind it. These people (who join cults) are not stupid. They are more idealistic and educated. It’s a misconception that these are only young people searching for things.
“Nobody joins a cult, they join something they think will make the world a better place. When they start seeing the hypocrisy, it helps them realize this isn’t what they thought it was.
“There are films and TV shows about all of this, but we need more discussion on the psychology of the brain, about how predators work, what a psychopath is, about people with no conscience. We also forget that there is a good part, that there is a certain happiness, a certain love, a certain sweetness; that the evil world does not flourish without this artificial good side. My hope is that people have compassion on the people who come out of this situation. Nobody signs up to become a zombie. This is a manipulation strategy.”
As a result of her experience in a fundamentalist cult, Katas, too, has been diagnosed with PTSD. She said:
I was being abused and exploited and I was in so much psychological agony that I thought about ending my life every single hour. But the reason I stayed is because my critical thinking wasn’t working. There are techniques that predators can use to cause women to live in fear.
Even if it’s just the fear of eternal damnation, when the emotional part of your brain is activated, the rational thinking part is not activated. So if a prophet keeps his people in a state of worrying about their eternal survival they are living in a state of fear so even when they see red flags and inconsistency that would make a person question if they were being told the truth, they can’t act on all these red flags, inconsistencies and questions of why would God do this to me?
When cult leaders continually put people in a state of being tested then their critical thinking is a handicap. So what happened with me is I saw inconsistencies and things happening that I did not deserve. It caused me to be uncomfortable so I ignored them. I said it must be me. The problem must be me because I wasn’t righteous enough. I ignored how my prophet put me in harm’s way. There was the religious me battling the real me all the time. My critical thinking was turned off because I was in a state of trying to survive and not kill myself.
I remember that my brain, after I got out, could not make sense of the world for years. There were certain things I just had to stop asking questions about. (My brain) was spaghetti that I couldn’t untangle, the world did not seem real to me. I would have waves of mourning with each new realization that what I had believed wasn’t true.
When they have this healing and wakeup, invariably the women who left polygamy realize, ‘Really, I didn’t have another choice. Going to hell was no option.’ Choosing to survive is not a free choice, it’s your only choice. When in a placement marriage or arranged marriage, you’re not given a healthy set of options from which to choose. The choice is do this or be damned
The way we take responsibility for our lives is by not blaming ourselves for what was done to us.
Warner assessed life within the FLDS church in similar terms.
“It’s women and children that are trapped against their will,” she said.
It’s a regimented lifestyle, with few, if any, choices.
“It’s all controlled – the food you eat, the house you live in, the clothes you wear, the way you comb your hair. If you don’t do what they say, things get taken away, one thing after another. At one point I just wanted to stay in my room. I didn’t even want to go to the kitchen because it was too dangerous, so I’d stay in my room.”
She said nobody tried to help her, that they wouldn’t even bring her food.
But, Warner said, that was typical of her life in the FLDS community.
“I wasn’t allowed to listen to music on the radio, all I heard were hymns. We weren’t allowed to watch movies. We had only specific books we could read. Now, it’s even more strict on books. TVs got outlawed.”
The control extended deeply into the community members’ day-to-day lives.
“The ladies, the mothers, are taught to sew, cook. They would get assigned to do cooking every single day for awhile, then they would rotate it. I was told my mission was to be an upholstery seamstress. I said I didn’t like sewing. They told me I wasn’t listening to God.
“The men actually worked either for money like in outside jobs or on the land, to build houses. Some men would work three days and two nights without rest. They were told ‘God reveals that you need to have this done by this day at this time, if not, there will be punishment from God.”
Warner said that even when he was on the run, Jeffs held a strong hold on his following, to the extent of holding church meetings in a remote canyon near Hildale.
“He would call us to the woods in a canyon and he would have us drive there to meet him and listen to his sermons while he was running from the law,” she said. “He would be out there for a few hours then he was gone.”
Warner confirmed that even after his capture, Jeffs continued to exert his power.
“He said it was the people’s fault that he was caught because he’s perfect, he can’t do anything wrong,” Warner said. “It just got stricter and stricter since he was caught. A lot of people have been sent away from Colorado City. He split up a lot of the families and told all the parents they were no longer married to each other, that they shouldn’t even desire to be together. And he assigned 15 guys to continue reproduction. He called them seed bearers. If the ladies don’t get pregnant they get kicked out, if they do get pregnant the baby is given to a caretaker.”
Warner said she plans to help the children of polygamy in the future.
“I want to become a psychologist and help the children, teach them how to communicate,” she said. “I understand the programming. I want to see a path in their lives, something at the end of the tunnel for them to cling to. Every little step makes a difference. I want to go into shelters and help people.”
And, while she is appreciative of the support she has received, she still remains driven.
“People tell me I’m strong and that is encouraging,” she said. “Personally? I want to be stronger.”
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.